Purple Haze

Warning: this is kind of long.

From my DVR, an astonishing rant from Bill Walton on Friday morning with Mike Greenberg. Walton doesn’t engage in conversation so much as delivers extended, breathless monologues in which he clearly is more taken with his own flights of rhetorical fancy than he is committed to actually making any sense whatsoever.

If the goal is to spew as much purple prose as possible, Walton is the reigning champion of sports commentators. If, on the other hand, the goal is to make one logically coherent statement, Walton is quite a bit less successful.

The meat of Greenie and Walton’s “conversation” was about the decline of the Big Man in basketball, prompted by Greenie asking Walton whether he would have been the same player had he left college early, as great big men invariably do today.

Walton said no, of course, and offered this assessment of the state of the big man today:

“the decline of the big man in basketball.. [compared to] when we used to have so many remarkable stars dominating the game is directly related to all the rule changes, including the cultural shift that doesn’t allow these young men to fulfill their dreams [because they leave college early].”

Then Walton offered a list of factors that are, in no particular order, responsible for this change:

– they don’t go to college, they don’t learn how to practice, they “don’t get touched by the master teachers”
– the three point shot has altered the role of the big man
– the changing structure of youth basketball, where the high school coach is no longer central to a player’s development, instead the money-driven AAU is central
– that there is a lack of team structure – you no longer have a coach who says get that ball inside to a big man
– the guards are just jacking it up at the three point
– Shaq, who has changed basketball, “because he’s just scared all the centers away”

Later, Walton reminisced wistfully about the late 1980s, when the game was dominated by great big men including Sampson, Olajuwon, Ewing and later David Robinson. And, then, in discussing Greg Oden, Walton blasted his coach Thad Matta, for under-utilizing him, calling him a huge “waste” of talent, and comparing Oden unfavorably to Noah, Horford and the Florida team in general, because Oden just “stood around” and was reactive and passive and “that’s not how you win.”

Finally, Walton offered this pearl of wisdom about life in general:

“ultimate success is from training your mind…and how to learn, how to think, how to build…they (the contemporary player) think it’s all about the physical nature of being tall…the greatest of champions, they know how to out-think their opponents…that’s how you learn how to beat the big man and the way you learn how to do that is from learning from the master teachers at the college level.”

Walton’s rant took seven minutes or so and I won’t take on everything he said (I do have to eat today), but let’s review some of the key claims, starting with Oden:

1) Walton’s views of Greg Oden

It’s true that Florida won the national championship, by beating Ohio State 84-75 last Monday. After any big game, it’s natural for sports analysts to look for factors that might explain the game’s outcome. This is called “analysis.” Walton, on the other hand, is not interested in “analysis.” He’s interested only in offering yet another extension on the single animating principle of his life which is, in a nutshell, that if you didn’t play for John Wooden, you are a lesser human being. Virtually everything that Bill Walton has to say about basketball will make more sense (relatively speaking, of course) if you keep that principle in mind.

So, what actually happened Monday night?

Oden was great. In fact, he’s the only guy who really showed up for OSU, other than Mike Conley, Jr. and he almost certainly played his best game of the season, finishing with 25 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in 38 minutes. He was tired at the end, but that doesn’t change the fact of how good he was. Al Horford, one of Florida’s big men, played an excellent game for Florida, but he only shot 6-15, surely affected by Oden’s defensive presence. And Noah, whose praises Walton sang for how he “came out” in the title game, managed 8 points and 4 rebounds and did his best work cheerleading from the bench, since he was saddled with foul trouble. Why did Florida win? Pretty simple – actually. They buried an unconscious ten of eighteen three-pointers.

So, to review – OSU makes it all the way to the title game with a freshman-heavy team, its star center plays his best game of the season in the title game itself, and Big Red concludes that Oden was waste of talent, who played a reactive game and “stood around” Monday night. This is beneath coherence unless you remember Walton’s life rule: if you didn’t play for John Wooden, you’re a lesser person. Oden’s coach is Thad Matta, not John Wooden. Oden is almost surely leaving after one season, rather than staying in college and learning from a “master teacher” like Wooden. OSU lost the title game. Florida reminds Walton of some of his UCLA teams. Ipso facto, Oden’s a waste of talent who stood around Monday night. I warned you – it’s only relatively less non-sensical now, but you can, at least, grope your way toward parsing a “logic” from Walton if you keep the Wooden principle in mind.

2) The decline of the Big Man more generally.

As noted above, Walton rued the passing of the great era of big men in the mid-1980s into the early 1990s, when Sampson, Hakeem, Ewing and the Admiral patrolled the middle in the NBA. One dominant center that Walton left out from this era was Moses Malone, who led the 76ers to the 1983 title and was a force in the middle for a decade overlapping the emergence of the aforementioned foursome. Malone never went to college, so he’s inconvenient to mention here. But, let’s ask ourselves whether the foursome mentioned above are really products of “master teachers” in college. Ewing’s probably the most obvious example – he played for John Thompson, a highly respected coach who was himself a big man and has a Celtics’ pedigree from the Russell era to boot. Of course, Thompson was a coach for a quarter of a century and the only years he ever made the final four were during the three appearances during the Ewing era, so it’s not clear who made whom here. But, let’s grant Walton this one.

How about Sampson? Sampson was in some ways never a prototypical center and was only good for about three NBA seasons, so his inclusion here is a bit odd (Moses Malone, by contrast, was great for at least ten, and for five years after Sampson declined as a player). But, we’re playing along. So, who was Sampson’s coach? Terry Holland. Holland had a nice career, and made U Va. into a competitive program. But, master teacher? That’s a bit of a stretch. Olajuwon played for Guy Lewis, who had a long, successful career at the University of Houston. Of course, Lewis never won a national championship despite having a lot of talented players come through his program and I have never heard anyone apply the label “master teacher” to him either. And, finally, David Robinson who played at the Naval Academy in college under Paul Evans. Evans had a good career, moving on to Pitt after Robinson left, but it’s stating the obvious to note that Evans was not the second coming of John Wooden. So, to argue that this great era for big men was somehow a product of their exposure to master teachers would be pushing it, to put it mildly.

But, it’s more than that. In the post Wooden era, who are the master teachers in college basketball? The three that most readily come to mind are Dean Smith, Bobby Knight and Coach K who have, combined, been head coaches for over one hundred seasons and racked up over 2400 wins. And, in all of their illustrious careers, none of this holy trinity has ever produced a classic center who was an NBA star (they’ve produced plenty of other players who were, of course). And all three coaches, especially Knight and Smith, coached a substantial portion of their careers (in Smith’s case, almost all of it), before the exodus of high school players to the NBA became a trend. So, what does that say about the relationship between master teachers and the decline of basketball Big Men?

Finally, on this point, it should be noted that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an era identified by Walton as a golden age for big men, we saw a string of NBA champions for whom centers played only a secondary role. The 1987 and 1988 Lakers had Kareem, but he was near the end of his career, a poor rebounding center whose stats, especially in 1988, were barely distinguishable from that of his back-up Mychal Thompson. The 1989 and 1990 Pistons were guard dominated and their center, Bill Laimbeer, was not a post player at all, offensively. And, the 1991-93 Bulls’ first three-peat featured possibly the worst centers ever on a championship team (so did their second three-peat).

In other words, not only is there no obvious connection between great Big Men and Master Teachers, but there is also no obvious connection between great Big Men and actually winning championships in the very era that Walton defines as a golden age for great Big Men in the NBA. Yes, Olajuwon won a couple of titles – helped no doubt by Jordan’s hiatus from the league, and Robinson won later in his career after Tim Duncan arrived. But, lest you tink that Duncan himself represents a partial return of the great big man, Walton has news for you, which brings us to point number three.

3) The Shaq factor

As noted above, Walton told Greenie that one of the reasons for the decline of the Big man was that Shaq had everyone running scared, afraid to play the position. Walton singled out three big men in this regard – Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Rasheed Wallace. Walton also specifically questioned why Garnett, Duncan and Wallace why they didn’t just play more like Bill Russell.

Of course, if the point is that they didn’t because they weren’t taught to because of the reasons noted above (no exposure to master teachers), then one can only conclude that Walton’s completely lost his mind by this point. KG never went to college, Rasheed played for a master teacher for two years, and Duncan stayed for the full four. In other words, Walton is lumping together three players who would appear to have nothing in common in terms of background, college experience and style of play. But, remember the key Walton rule of life – if you didn’t play for John Wooden, you are a lesser human being. Seen in that light, a commonality emerges among Wallace, KG and Duncan – none of them ever played for John Wooden or, secondarily, even played within a decade of Wooden’s presence on the sideline. Ipso Facto…

Never mind that Duncan and Wallace have somehow managed to win four NBA championships between them in an era in which Shaq was the dominant player and supposedly cowed them all (and Duncan and Sheed both took on and beat Shaq head-to-head during their championship runs).

On the Russell comment – recall that Bill Russell was voted the single best player in NBA history. Despite that fact, Bill Walton is suggesting that the reason that Duncan, KG and Sheed don’t play exactly like him is attributable not to the fact that it’s hard to play like the best player ever but because they’re afraid of Shaq, which somehow has to do with having played in an era of declining Big Men. If you’re lost by now, join the club.
4) Bill Walton’s overall life philosophy.

Walton’s dream sequence is ostensibly about Big Men, but of course, it’s really about the overall decline of our culture. Those, like Walton, who learned from the master teachers (like Wooden), know that it’s about mental training, which is to say character, will, and heart. That’s convenient, because while the average basketball player today is indisputably superior in terms of quickness, strength, agility and overall athleticism compared to thirty years ago (not to mention conditioning), it’s harder to say whether the average contemporary player has more heart, or character or whatever because those are vague and difficult to define qualities. And, because those are difficult-to-define qualities, that’s a perfect opening for the Bill Waltons of the world to develop half-baked, cockamamie theories to “prove” that things ain’t what they used to be.

So, how did Greenie react to all this? As he usually does when he’s receiving wisdom from one of the shows’ regular “experts.” By completely shutting down all critical faculties and sitting agog, soaking in the wisdom of the masters from whose expertise he’s so fortunate to benefit. Walton’s take is “fascinating” head-shakingly illuminating stuff, never mind that none of it makes any sense at all – it’s just a parade of self-contradictory, incoherent and, of course, unsubstantiated assertions.

Just another day in the world of high-profile sports punditry.

‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky…


8 Responses to “Purple Haze”

  1. Trying to reason with Bill Walton somehow destroys the beauty of what he is saying. Your second paragraph is right on–Walton’s goal is not to give rational analysis. He’s self-consciously bombastic, practically expecting the listener to react with laughter or exasperation. He can’t be dissected the way a typical pundit can.

    And knowing what we know about Walton (his political radicalism during his playing days, his vegetarianism, his drug use, etc.), I wonder if he’s a typical “things were better in my day” pundit, either–he’s more the (as you say) “John Wooden is Jesus and nothing else matters” type of pundit. But I think he’s self-aware of this, and as long as we’re aware of this, we shouldn’t take his craziness all that seriously.

  2. Excellent piece Weiler. A good roasting and toasting of Big Red has been a long time coming!

  3. […] Jackson had a respectable enough career to give his opinions some validity. And unlike Bill Walton (see J Weiler’s piece for more) he seems to actually believe what he says sometimes. Fyi: Jackson actually far more entertaining […]

  4. PV

    I agree and disagree with you. You’re absolutely right – I think Big Red just loves to hear himself pontificate (and, man, can he get on a roll) – and probably doesn’t care either way what people think. And, I also agree that he’s not the typical “things-used-to-be-so-much-better” pundit. But, I still think he falls into that category, even if his overall politics undoubtedly differ from the run-of-mill woe-is-us sports pundit. And, it’s still bothersome that he is valorized for his “expertise” when he’s so far off the mark.


  5. I’m up in the air on Walton. I concur I that his criticism of players is undeserved and sick with “my era was better than your era” bs. On the other hand, he was prominent at the MLK ground breaking mounument ceremony. I was disgusted that more professional athetes–especially Black ones–weren’t there. I’m still hot and somewhat confused that so many east coast athetes dropped the historical ball.

    I can’t stand his long winded commentary, but I have a new found respect for Big Red simply because of his DC appearance–the look in his eyes proved to me he was genuinely conscious and social aware of the impact of that day.

    DWil and I have discussed Walton at length…his play spoke for itself before he was injured…but seriously he sold out when he got behind the mic.

    As far as Sampson, he would have been great if not for that gruesome back injury. I’ll never forget him falling flat on his back and being carried off on a stretcher.

  6. Hey, J! Great new site. Looking forward to checking it out.

    One quick point on this: “And all three coaches, especially Knight and Smith, coached a substantial portion of their careers (in Smith’s case, almost all of it), before the exodus of high school players to the NBA became a trend.”

    Smith may have coached before the real exodus, but it can be argued that perhaps the most masterful post-Wooden teacher greatly accelerated—and perhaps initiated—the trend toward leaving college early. Beginning with McAdoo and continuing on with Jordan, Worthy, Wallace, Stackhouse….., etc., Smith encouraged his underclassmen to go pro early when they were going to be high draft picks (and to come back in summers to finish their degrees). So being a master teacher (and no one disputes this about Smith) and encouraging kids to turn pro early when appropriate do not necessarily contradict one another, something else Walton misses.

  7. If Walton is right and the “culture” of nuturing big men and maintaining their prominent role in the game is so important, then why change the rules to lessen their impact?

    Walton reifies rules as if they were delivered from on high. Who made these rule changes? Maybe pogo was right.

  8. […] course, incessant references to John Wooden. One of the first posts I wrote for TSF was, in fact, a lengthy diatribe about Walton. Oh, and did I mention the incessant references to John […]

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